Slave Descendants Putting Freedom Back Into Jacksonville New Year’s Celebrations

Dec 29, 2017

A portion of the Emancipation Proclamation Page 1.
Credit National Archives

Many churches in Jacksonville will host New Year’s Eve services, sometimes called “watch nights.”  This year, some predominantly African-American churches will be turning their focus back to a fading tradition: recognizing the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.  

Heather Hodges, director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, said her organization has been working for a year to get freedom from slavery recognized on New Year’s Eve, or what’s sometimes called Freedom’s Eve.

She said over time, the anniversary’s mention has disappeared from many church’s services. She said on December 31, 1862, the watch night was particularly meaningful because the next day, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

Although the proclamation, which applied to states that had seceded from the Union, didn’t immediately free slaves, some historians credit it as beginning the process because the president had taken a stand saying slavery is wrong. Slavery was officially abolished with the ratification of the 13th amendment almost three years later.

The Gullah Geechee corridor covers 12,000 square miles of parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. It’s where many people live who are “direct descendants of the West Indians and Central Africans who were enslaved and brought to the lowcountry, primarily to work on rice plantations,” Hodges said.

Hodges said around 50 churches in the Gullah corridor, including five in Jacksonville, have signed on the incorporate the Emancipation Proclamation into their watch night services. She said each congregation will decide how it’s incorporated.

“There are some that are actually going to do skits, reenacting what happened on Freedom’s Eve,” Hodges said. “There are some that will read the Emancipation Proclamation.”

In addition, Edward Waters College is hosting an Emancipation Proclamation Day Service on New Year’s Day at 10:45 a.m. according to the Corridor Commission.

The cultural heritage corridor was established in 2006 by an act of Congress. It’s a national heritage area administered by the National Parks Service.  

WATCH: The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission explains watch nights. 

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.